Early in Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” reboot from 1996, a flight attendant offers a selection of videotapes to Jon Voight’s mysterious spy team leader, who, sitting in first class, drolly replies that he prefers the theater.
“Would you consider the cinema of the Ukraine?” the attendant asks. The agent accepts the “Ukrainian” tape, whose secret message concludes with the news that the tape will self-destruct in five seconds.
It probably wasn’t De Palma’s intent to say that Ukrainian cinema is dangerous, although the nation’s current crisis should remind us of the perils of knowing about the art and culture of a country on the brink of war mainly through a brief reference in an 18-year-old Hollywood blockbuster.
Fortunately, a handful of Ukrainian films — two of them certified classics of world cinema — are widely available for streaming on demand.
From 1930, “Earth” (on Amazon Instant Video) is the acknowledged masterpiece of filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko, the so-called father of Ukrainian cinema. Set in a small Ukrainian village, this silent film speaks volumes about the struggle between collective farmers and land-owning peasants, millions of whom would soon become victims of Stalin’s war on “rural capitalists.”
Still, Dovzhenko’s gorgeous film, condemned by Soviet critics as “counterrevolutionary,” is less concerned with plot (or politics) than with praising nature and modernity alike through images of astonishing beauty.
The film’s only rival for the title of greatest Ukrainian movie came in 1964, when Sergei Parajanov’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (Amazon, Hulu Plus and iTunes) took the international film world by storm with its narratively radical, pictorially ravishing tale of mid-19th-century Carpathian villagers, including star-crossed young lovers whose families are engaged in a blood feud.
Again, Soviet authorities pounced, deeming the film “decadent.” Soon becoming an enemy of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Parajanov was arrested on charges of “Ukrainian nationalism” and eventually sentenced to several years of hard labor in the gulag.
Far less significant, but much more contemporary, 2007’s “The Pied Piper of Hutzovina” (Amazon and Hulu Plus) is an enjoyable documentary that follows musician and professional goofball Eugene Hutz, frontman of the gypsy punk group Gogol Bordello, on his wild road and rail trip through Ukraine. Visiting downtrodden gypsy camps, the swanky Kiev Gypsy Theater and everything in between, Hutz meets fellow musicians, dances like crazy and stubbornly resists the romantic attention of Czech filmmaker Pavla Fleischer.
Hutz, having played the Elijah Wood character’s guide through Ukraine in the film version of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Everything Is Illuminated,” here takes his own Ukrainian journey to explore his heritage. The documentary culminates in Hutz’s reunion with his aunt, uncle and Gypsy grandma in Kiev, where, in terms of the origins of his colorful persona, everything is illuminated, sort of.
Also notable on VOD
“The Pied Piper of Hutzovina” is also on Fandor, a rich hub of cinephilia whose thousands of rare, classic and otherwise fascinating titles are available for streaming through a Web browser or Roku device.
Guaranteed to send any adventurous movie lover reeling, Fandor — about which I’ll have more to say next week — is where one finds “My Joy” (2010), the first Ukrainian film to have screened in competition at Cannes, and one of the most ironically titled motion pictures from anywhere on Earth.
Unremittingly bleak, “My Joy” dares to depict Russia as a nation overrun by casual cruelty, thievery and murder. The movie spends nearly an hour following Georgy (Viktor Nemets), a young trucker from Ukraine, only to abandon him in favor of flashbacks to World War II, as if to reveal the origins of the brutality that ends up engulfing the film’s would-be hero.
Suffice it to say that while “My Joy” is no pleasure, its provocative view of violent tension near the Russian-Ukrainian border has become essential.